The Anglo-Saxons, Angelcynn or Englisc were a northwestern Germanic ethnic group or tribes who sailed across the North Sea to Britain (largely modern England and the Lowlands of Scotland, excluding the western segment of Cornwall) from the early 5th century AD. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes them as:
However other tribes are known to have accompanied them, including the Frisians, and also possibly Western Slavs, living in Germanic settlement areas, such as the Wends. From the late 8th century, the North Germanic Vikings later raided, having later annexed northern segments of territory from the Anglo-Saxons. However Alfred the Great in the 9th century halted the Vikings further attempt at conquest. It should be pointed out that the Anglo-Saxon tribes were never united until the reign of Athelstan (c. 927), when a united Anglo-Saxon kingdom took shape into England. Prior to this, the Anglo-Saxons formed a "heptarchy" (seven independent kingdoms) who were at war with each other, although in numerous cases there were alliances between two or more of these kingdoms. Old English has its roots in the West Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons, related to Old Frisian.
The theory that the Anglo-Saxons migrated into Britain in mass numbers has recently been challenged. Professor Bryan Sykes (2006) has argued that the genetic input of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain was minimal, instead he asserts that there is genetic continuity of the ethnic English people from the far earlier Neolithic, and even Mesolithic periods.
The Anglo-Saxons are described as white skinned, blue eyed and blonde haired in early literature, some drawing from eye-witness testimony.
- Apollinaris Sidonius, Letters, Book viii. ix. "To his friend Lampridius" (478 AD):
"We see in his courts the blue-eyed Saxon, lord of the seas, but a timid landsman here."
- Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, ii. i (731 AD):
"Nor is the account of St. Gregory, which has been handed down to us by the tradition of our ancestors, to be passed by in silence, in relation to his motives for taking such interest in the salvation of our nation. It is reported, that some merchants, having just arrived at Rome on a certain day, exposed many things for sale in the marketplace, and abundance of people resorted thither to buy: Gregory himself went with the rest, and, among other things, some boys were set to sale, their bodies white, their countenances beautiful, and their hair very fine. Having viewed them, he asked, as is said, from what country or nation they were brought? And was told, from the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were of such personal appearance. He again inquired whether those islanders were Christians, or still involved in the errors of paganism? And was informed that they were pagans. Then fetching a deep sigh from the bottom of his heart, 'Alas! what pity,' said he, "that the author of darkness is possessed of men of such fair countenances; and that being remarkable for such graceful aspects, their minds should be void of inward grace." He therefore again asked, what was the name of that nation? and was answered, that they were called Angles. "Right," said he, for they have an Angelic face, and it becomes such to be co-heirs with the Angels in heaven."
- The Exeter Book, Riddle 80 (10th century):
"The 'fair-haired Queen, the daughter of an earl, sometimes lays her hand on me, well-born through she is."
- Jacobus de Voragine, Golden Legend ("The Life of S. Gregory") Vol. 3 (1260 AD):
"It happed afterward that as S. Gregory passed through the market of Rome, and saw there two fair children white and ruddy of visage, and fair yellow hair which were for to sell. And S. Gregory demanded from whence they were, and the merchant answered, of England. After S. Gregory demanded if they were Christian, and he answered: Nay, but that they were paynims. Then sighed S. Gregory and said: Alas, what fair people hath the devil in his doctrine and in his domination. After he demanded how these people were called: he answered that they were called Angles men; then he said they may well be so called for they have the visage of angels."
- These riddles are clear that there was a difference in physiognomy between the indigenous Britons (Wealisc) and Saxons. The former are called are described as swarthy (swearte) and dark haired (wonfeax). In her work Women in Anglo-Saxon England (1984: 25) Christine E. Fell has noted: "References to wealisc women are usually to slaves, and an ethnic class distinction is suggested in the riddles of the Exeter Book between the blonde (hwitlocced) daughter of an Anglo-Saxon nobleman and the dark-haired (wonfeax) Welsh slave". According to Day (2001): "dark colouring in the Exeter Book characterizes as low status, especially for the British servants". Riddle 49 and 52 both describe swarthy/dark haired Britons, while Riddle 72 describes a lower class 'dark' Welsh herdsman (sweartum hyrde). The Anglo-Saxons in sharp contrast are described as blonde (hwitlocced) and elsewhere as pale (hwit), for example the Saxon female royal in Riddle 80 is described as fair haired. The Anglo-Saxon Germanic stock however were only the minority higher class, ruling over the mass population of darker aborigines Britons. It is also known that the fair haired upper class was aware of their distinction in appearance and they bitterly resented the loss of their fairer features through intermarriage with the lower dark classes. Tupper (1910: 170) notes that "black hair was held in disfavor" by the Anglo-Saxons, and when the Anglo-Saxons were Christianized they depicted Eve as fair haired (Genesis B, line 457).
- Sykes, Bryan. (2006). Blood of the Isles. Bantam Press.
- Anglo-Saxon - Englisc Heritage at Wilucuma